Here’s how far Richard Lewis will go for a laugh, especially when his good buddy, “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” creator Larry David, is involved:
In “Curb’s” fifth and most recent season, an ongoing plot line concerned Lewis needing a kidney transplant and David wrestling with his conscience over just how far he should go to help out his friend in need.
“I dropped 15 pounds for a 12-second shot, where Larry sees me walking down the (hospital) hall,” says Lewis with uncurbed glee. “I really wanted Larry to freak, to see his own death, what it might be like.”
Lewis was so convincing at appearing frail and sickly that friends and relatives sent e-mails. “Instead of the usual `Can I borrow a thousand (dollars)?’ it was `Are you sick? Are you going to get a kidney?’” he says.
The message that meant the most, however, came from Debra Winger. “I’ve known Debra for decades. We went out briefly early in my career, and decided to become friends,” says the Brooklyn-born, Englewood, N.J-raised comic.
“She’s got, what, three Academy Award nominations, and she e-mailed me after that scene in the hospital and said that was some of the best acting ever. I was very flattered by that.”
At this point in his long career, Lewis is a well-known commodity. As GQ once noted, the Ohio State University grad is one of the most influential American humorists of the last century.
Stand-up comedy’s Man in Black - Lewis says he would consider wearing another color “only if I was up for `The Don Ho Story’” - has made a living since the early 1970s fracturing America’s funnybone with self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness riffs about high anxiety and hypochondria. The expression “the (blank) from hell” (as in “the date from hell”) is generally considered his invention.
For many years Lewis was a fixture on late-night TV, with more than 50 “Letterman” appearances alone. He created a series of memorable comedy specials (compiled on the DVD “Concerts From Hell - The Vintage Years”), and starred with Jamie Lee Curtis in the well-regarded sitcom, “Anything But Love,” from 1989 to 1992.
Lewis contributed an interview to the DVD release of “Love’s” first season in February. “I wished they had promoted the DVD a little more,” he says, adding that that it was the production company, not the network, that canceled the show.
“ABC ordered another 26 episodes, which would have put us close to that magical 100-episode number, which would mean syndication. ... If we had reached 100, I would be talking to you from a villa now.”
Lewis says he and Curtis were never informed the show was canceled. “We drove up on a Monday morning for a table reading of the script and they were breaking down the set for a new pilot,” he says. “It was just sort of pathetic, and heartbreaking. It was really a black day.”
Lewis also is recognized as a writer. In particular, his 2001 book, “The Other Great Depression,” about his recovery from alcoholism, drew kudos for its honesty and humor.
“I’m very lucky,” he says. “(Alcoholism) is a disease, and I finally said, `I give up.’ ... There are enough people in hospitals with AIDS and cancer who didn’t give themselves the disease. At least I could stop giving myself the disease.”
On a personal level, Lewis has had triumphs too. Besides maintaining his sobriety, the onetime commitment-phobic comic has been married since 2005 to Joyce Lapinsky, whom he met nine years ago.
Lewis even joined the board of Urban Farming, where Lapinsky serves as development consultant. The nonprofit founded by singer-songwriter Taja Sevelle tries to help eradicate hunger by planting food crops on unused land in metropolitan areas.
With his 60th birthday on the horizon (it’s June 29), Lewis is both philosophical and very happy. “I’m not ready to turn 60, but I felt 60 when I was 12, so I’ve been really prepared for this. ...
“I’ve never enjoyed stand-up more,” he continues. “Once I hit that stage it’s probably the happiest I am.”
Lewis says he also derives “great joy” working on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with David, “one of my best friends.”
As for “Curb’s” sixth season, which just finished filming, Lewis says apologetically, “I can’t divulge anything about the story arc or my house will blow up mysteriously.”
Lewis met David at a sports camp the summer after eighth grade. “We were absolute rivals,” says Lewis. “I beaned him when we played baseball and fouled him hard on the basketball court. We became best friends in our early 20s when we were both doing stand-up in New York City, not knowing we had once despised each other.”
Lewis remembers what it was like hanging out in David’s fourth-floor walk-up: “He said he could play the piano, but it was one classical piece over and over again. Listening to it was like waterboarding. His apartment was the Gitmo of our early comedy days.”
On the “Curb” set Lewis and David often will toy with actors unfamiliar with their relationship. “I’ll walk by and say `You’re a jerk!’ to Larry just to see what the actor is thinking,” Lewis laughs.
One pet peeve Lewis has with David is his whistling. “He is the most brilliant comedy writer, but for some reason Larry David is clueless about rock `n’ roll. When he hears something he likes, he starts singing or worse, whistling.”
Lewis compares David’s whistling prowess to Earl Hagen’s on “The Fishin’ Hole,” better known as the “Andy Griffith Show” theme.
“But he’ll whistle `In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ like Andy Williams would sing it and ruin the song!” says an exasperated Lewis. “I have to warn him, `Stay away from that John Lennon song. You’ll ruin it.’
“He’s an annoying guy. And I love him.”